Sunday, April 4, 2010

40th Street (Cont. #14)

A Coney Island tale, in the 1950s.

XVII: The warped "S"

I began draping a towel over my shoulders and down my back on the beach around the time I turned thirteen or fourteen. That’s when my scoliosis—a deformity in which the spine curves unnaturally—began to show markedly. Everybody else in the world had a straight back; I was the only one in creation whose back resembled the letter S. A kind of warped S.

Which also lowered my height several inches. And because the teen years are when survival means you have to look tall like everybody else, or at least like every other teenager, walking around with a weird back that made you even shorter than usual was a source of constant humiliation. It wasn’t so bad when I had a shirt on, because it was hidden. But at the beach, of course, wearing only a bathing suit, nothing was hidden.

“Hey, look at Nathan’s back!” Louie called out once, when the towel had slipped, and everybody came running to look. Louie was a tall, skinny guy with severe acne, but he didn’t seem to mind that. Or he didn’t openly mind it. So everybody stared.

After a few seconds, though, they shrugged and walked away. But even though they pretended not to care, and talked and carried on, and pushed and shoved each other, and laughed like crazy about a million other things, I knew that they were all obsessed with my back.

Secretly, maybe, and silently. But still.

I wanted to grab Louie and shake him and scream at everybody to look at his acne hah hah!

One hot summer day we were all at the beach, Bay 8 at Coney Island. By “all,” I mean all the teens on 40th Street and surrounding areas. All the boys and all the girls. I was fifteen. This day was different, because Norma Stein was there. She was a few years younger than me, and I knew she liked me. First crush, probably. I felt she was too young for me—even one year’s difference when you’re a teen is enormous, let alone three—but I was thrilled that she actually liked me, so I’d talk to her when we’d all gather together on summer evenings at someone’s porch. Or just on the sidewalk, with portable radios playing Little Richard and Fats Domino and other rock ’n roll.

Anyway, that day at the beach, with the towel constantly slipping, I felt horrible. Norma would see me with my scoliotic back, and like everybody else in the world would shrink back in disgust. So when she shyly walked up to me—facing my front, not my back—I turned away, mortified, gripping the towel tightly around my shoulders. She said “Hi,” and I think I didn’t even answer her. Instead I walked away.

And later that evening, back on 40th Street, when we all re-gathered to talk about whatever we talked about, and listened to music, I deliberately ignored her. I knew she was wondering what the heck was happening, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t face her. She had seen with her own eyes what a physical freak I was.

From that day on, I don’t think I ever said another word to her. I’d hear through the grapevine that she was very upset, that she didn’t know why I wouldn’t speak to her, that maybe she thought that she had done something bad—this sweet, innocent young girl—but I could never tell anybody. I could never say how horrible I felt.

Not horrible that I was behaving like a selfish, self-centered shit. Horrible because I had let the towel slip earlier that day.

On some level, I think I have been wrapping myself in a towel ever since.

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